SPIKE IS GONNA KILL ME
By Nandi Bowe
By the time I met Spike Lee, he had already burst onto the independent film scene with “She’s Got to Have It“ and “School Daze.“ He was doing things that no one had done and for a young, African American, woman filmmaker like me, he was an inspiration.
Spike Lee was trying to fit into his rapidly growing shoes, and I was glad to be there to embrace his particular brand of storytelling. He is a genius and a visionary and in 1988, he was young and full of raw passion and drive. Spike was building the foundations for a new future. He was someone to watch, someone to be near and for those reasons and a host of others, his sets were vibrant and innovative.
Spike Lee does not make films in a democratic fashion. He is the unapologetic judge and the jury on his sets. There are no debates, no votes and most everybody plays by the rules. Spike is a perfectionist and in his early days, he was prone to yelling when the frustration overwhelmed him. My relationship with Spike was cordial and guarded. His tantrums were not mean-spirited but lethal just the same. I avoided them at all costs.
There are countless filmmakers who came through the “Spike Lee School of Filmmaking.” Some stayed on for many films and others, like me, had the experience of a lifetime and then moved on to other arenas. 30 years later, those same actors and filmmakers are leading men and women, film directors, producers, production executives, writers, and cinematographers. In many cases, like my own, my big promotion came on a Spike Lee film.
Without much fanfare, I was hired to work as the 2nd Assistant Director on “Do the Right Thing.“ I had worked on about eight films by then and had a pretty good idea of how to do the job, but I had never done it on an American film. I was excited and nervous. I was surrounded by some of the best of the next generation of filmmakers. One of Spike’s greatest talents is putting good people together and letting them do good work.
On “Do the Right Thing,” there were 25 actors working every day and 25 to 50 extras working every day, as well. They had to be picked up, dressed, made up and propped up before the shooting day could begin. Since all of the action took place on the one street, during one story day, actors that were not featured in one scene were often in the background of another. It was challenging work, and it took a whole team of us to do it well.
The most annoying thing about being an Assistant Director is that everything is potentially your fault. If someone makes a mistake, you’re to blame because you didn’t stop him or her or you didn’t know about it or you didn’t anticipate it. It’s one of those jobs where your hand is in every pot so you’d better make sure nothing’s burning or boiling over… and something always is.
We filmed on a street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that had been purged of crack houses so that our sets could be built. There were still remnants of the drugs and the hardship in the people who remained. There were stray dogs and broken bottles, and there was a lack of municipal support. No trains even stopped in the neighborhood.
It was a hot, colorful summer, and it was a really good time. There were always famous people visiting the set. One day Stevie Wonder came by, another day it was Lawrence Fishburne.
As if working long hours, five days a week wasn’t enough, on weekends, all of the cast and crew hung out together. There was a party that was laid on for us by Eddie Murphy at his palatial New Jersey estate, “Bubble Hill”. More than 100 of us showed up around noon, crammed into cars and taxis. We danced, swam and ate and drank until well into the night. By the time we left, the pool was murky with so many people jumping in and out of it all day with grassy feet. Frizzy-haired and worn out, we all made our way back to Brooklyn.
There was a party at Branford Marsalis’ house and again, we were all there, maybe we were invited, maybe not, didn’t really matter, we were there. John Turturro gave a party at some swish New York club, and we went en masse. Sometimes, we just crowded into a comedy club where one of the actors was performing.
At lunchtime on the set, we all packed into the basement of a brownstone where we ate. It was during those meals that Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris and Steve White did stand-up. We would roar with laughter while we rushed down our food. It was my job to break up the party when lunch was over. Not fun, I didn’t want the show to stop any more than anyone else. When you’re the AD, you have to be the grown up.
We laughed, and we had a good time, but perhaps with the exception of Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Danny Aiello, we were all afraid of Spike. He didn’t suffer fools, and he didn’t mind publicly embarrassing you if the job wasn’t done quickly enough or to his satisfaction. I managed to dodge his wrath for most of the film, until the day that Giancarlo Esposito didn’t show up for work.
It was bad enough that Giancarlo wasn’t there and Spike was ready to see him on set, the terrible part came when someone who was stalling for time told Spike that he was down at the basecamp getting dressed. Spike got more and more impatient and steam started coming out of his ears. Smart people drifted further and further away from the eye of the storm. It was my job to be in the vortex so there I was, on the phone, calling, searching and praying for word that Giancarlo had arrived. Word didn’t come.
One Production Assistant after the next was sent down to the basecamp to bring Giancarlo up to set. And one after the next would go down to the school we were using as a basecamp and just sit there–having been instructed by Spike himself, not to come back without Giancarlo.
The radio communications at the school were dodgy at best so each PA would cause interference on their radios in an attempt to hide the truth from Spike. Spike didn’t really appreciate deception. In that area, he lacked a certain sense of humor.
Eventually, I was sent down to get the actor that I knew was missing. I was the last to go. Everyone in my department, except for my boss, was already down there. As I began the long walk down to the basecamp, I watched my brief career in the film business flash before my eyes.
I joined the ten other production staff members and we hung around while I continued to call every place I could think of to try and track Giancarlo down. Still nothing.
And then the call I knew would come, came…
“Nandi,” I tried to steady my voice.
“Go for Nandi.”
“Spike is coming down to get Giancarlo himself.” All I could think is, Spike is gonna kill me! It wasn’t even that I had done much to deserve it. I was just going to be a casualty of circumstance.
All of the team looked at me. If there was ever a time that I had to be a leader, this was it. I took a moment to come up with plan. It was crude but it was better than my first idea, which was just to tell everyone to run.
“Go into the school, hide and turn off your radios. Don’t come out until I say.” They were all too happy to oblige. Within moments, I was alone on the street and in the distance, Spike Lee, dressed as his character “Mookie,” stomped toward me.
The music didn’t swell and I didn’t suddenly become brave. I was just trying to do the best I could. I was trying not to sell out the liar. I wanted to protect my team and to have some integrity at the same time.
The street was shaking with every step Spike took and when he was within a half block of me, I inhaled, asked for God’s’ help, and I marched up to meet him.
“Where’s Giancarlo?” he barked.
“He’s not here.” I said sternly.
“Why was I told he was here?” I had been wondering the same thing.
“I don’t know.” I barked back without flinching. He looked at me, I looked at him and there was a moment between us that lasted a lifetime. Then, he turned on his heels and stomped back up the street.
I took the breath that I hadn’t taken in the last ten minutes and I went inside to gather the troops. If I had any doubt that I was a leader – a 2nd AD – it was gone. I had looked Spike in the face and held my ground. Bigger and more experienced people couldn’t say the same.
Some years later, when I made my own film, Spike and his wife came to the screening. It was such a generous gesture. With his hand, he had shifted the trajectory of the American film industry, and I was one of the many examples of the outcome.
“For as long as I can remember there have been stories in my mind, stories that no one else was telling. I have made it my life goal to tell stories that reflect another aspect of American culture, of world culture. I want my images to enhance people’s lives. I want to move people with my art and excite people with my creative vision.” Bowe explains. She has written and directed a number of short films including, “Statistically Speaking,” starring Alfre Woodard and Garry Marshall, which aired on HBO and on Showtime.
Storytelling is Bowe’s passion. She is currently developing a television series based on the inspirational life of Ronald Hummons. The series is a gritty look into the roots of childhood trauma and the persistence and perseverance required to rise above it. She is also developing a family drama.
Bowe moved with her family to India for three years. During that time, she wrote the memoir “Hollywood to Bollywood and is currently developing a series based on “Hollywood to Bollywood” about an African American woman moving her family to India and getting more spiritual awakenings and adventures than she hoped for. “Spike is Gonna Kill Me” is a chapter from that book.
Bowe began her professional film career as a Production Assistant and went on to work as an Assistant Director on “Do The Right Thing”, “Daughters of The Dust”, Whoopi Goldberg’s three films “Sister Act 2”, “Boys on the Side”, “The Long Walk Home”, Garry Marshall’s “Frankie and Johnny”, “Sneakers”, “To Wong Foo…”, “House Party”, “Funny Valentines”, “Johnson Family Vacation”, “Rikers” and many others including television shows…“The Parent Hood”, “The Grubbs”, “The Stones” and “Just Jordan”. She was a Staff Writer on “The Lone Gunmen”, an “X-Files” spin-off. She was also a 2008, DGA/Disney Directing Fellow.
Bowe continues to take definitive steps toward realizing her lifelong goal of being an extraordinary filmmaker who tells powerful stories that entertain, inspire and uplift.